Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

by Mark Mathabane
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

Abuse of PowerKaffir Boy is a searing indictment against South Africa's National Party's bigoted and unethical abuse of power. When the party won the 1948 election based on their promise to legalize apartheid (racial separation of blacks and whites), the minority white population thus became the lawgivers, restricting living...

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Abuse of Power
Kaffir Boy is a searing indictment against South Africa's National Party's bigoted and unethical abuse of power. When the party won the 1948 election based on their promise to legalize apartheid (racial separation of blacks and whites), the minority white population thus became the lawgivers, restricting living areas, schools, medical resources, and movement of the majority black population to specifically designated ghettos outside the city of Johannesburg. Blacks could not leave their homes without passes containing a photograph, address, marital information, and employment status. Mathabane and his family, like all other blacks in South Africa, became victims of a racially abusive system that continued in power until the early nineties.

Equal Opportunity
The lack of equal opportunity is graphically portrayed in Kaffir Boy. Jackson Mathabane is arrested and imprisoned for being temporarily unemployed. While he is in prison, his wife and children, unable to afford food, go every morning to garbage dumps on the outskirts of the ghetto to scavenge for food. They get up early in order to be the first ones there when the garbage trucks arrive from Johannesburg because they know that there will be large quantities of food that have been thrown away by wealthy whites who live in posh neighborhoods. They also discover practically new clothing, furniture, cooking utensils, and other useful objects that are still in excellent condition—objects that they cannot afford to buy.

The contrast between the opportunities open to blacks and those open to whites is further portrayed in the visits of Mathabane and Granny to the Smiths' home in Johannesburg. The three-member Smith family lives in a house that is ten times the size of that of the nine-member Mathabane family. The Smith home has central heat and air, running water, and bedrooms in which no one sleeps. The Mathabane home is made of thin materials that offer little protection against wind, rain, cold, or heat. It has only two rooms and no indoor plumbing. Games, books, clothes, and toys that Clyde Smith carelessly discards are rich treasures to Mathabane.

Gender Equality
Another important theme in Kaffir Boy is that of gender equality. Tribal custom views daughters as far more valuable than sons because men must pay the father lobola (a bride price) to secure a wife and children. As a result, both wives and daughters are often treated more like property than like human beings. Despite her husband's abuse, Mathabane's mother is trapped in her marriage not only because her father has already spent the bride price Jackson paid for her but also because she will not abandon her daughters to their father's treatment.

Victims and Victimization
For many, the term "victim'' connotes a helpless person that has become an object for some other person or disease to abuse. In Kaffir Boy, Mathabane's mother and father, by contrast, prove that connotation false. Jackson Mathabane has been so horribly victimized and emasculated by apartheid that he allows alcohol and bitterness to turn him into a victimizer, abusing his wife and children. On the other hand, Mathabane's mother refuses to be a victim. She stands up to her husband on issues that matter and seeks the asylum of her mother's house when it becomes necessary. She uses her love and her wisdom to pull her ten-year-old son back from suicide, teaching him that the will to survive, the refusal to give in to the victimizer, can transform a would-be victim into a winner.

The Value of Education
Kaffir Boy's single most important theme is the value of education. Knowing that her actions will likely result in a severe beating from her husband, Mathabane's mother still enrolls her son in school and takes the consequences. Because she believes that education is the key that will open up a new world and a new life for her son, she will risk anything to give him that key. She knows that knowledge bestows power, instills values, and equips one with the weapons necessary to fight injustice. She believes that it will liberate her son from the prison house of poverty, and it does. "My love for reading removed me from the streets," says Mathabane. It also removed him from the ghetto into a life of learning, writing, and teaching in the United States.

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